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Adopting Africa
  • November 01, 2012 : 00:11
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The event would be a full day’s program of talks and films, billed as “Celebrating World Day for Audiovisual Heritage in Namibia,” organized by UNESCO. I was asked if I would be willing to speak at this Tsumkwe event, on “Preserving a Cultural Heritage.” The subject, however vague, interested me. I said yes, fighting my skepticism, and was glad afterward, because I learned how quiet, humble, noncelebrity aid was working.

Tsumkwe’s community center was officially designated the Captain Kxao Kxami Community Learning and Development Centre. Far from being a Namibian government effort, the center had been built in 2005 with funds from the Namibian Association of Norway. This group of Norwegian well-wishers was also deeply involved in local village education projects. The Redbush Tea Company chipped in with money, a charity in South Africa donated books and the center was supplied with computers and an internet connection. In 2009 the Texas chapter of the Explorers Club collected money to construct the seminar room where I would give my talk.

On the face of it, Tsumkwe—solitary, remote, poor—was the classic example of a hard-up outpost in Africa, adopted by noncelebrity foreigners as a recipient of funds and the idealistic efforts of outsiders to improve education and health. Unlike in Oworobong this was all done quietly. No hype about “saving lives.” The Norwegians had been at it for 30 years, funneling money to the place and producing extensive and scholarly self-financed surveys of the hardships and goals of the local people.

In my talk I advocated that local people take down the oral histories of the elders in the region, making a database of folktales and proverbs, customs and traditions. The students and elders listened politely, but soon afterward I learned that such an effort was already in the works, thanks to a foreign-funded transcription project in Tsumkwe. Who knew?

The Ju’hoan Transcription Group had been active in Tsumkwe since 2002, but the tales had been collected since 1971. Much of this work was due to the Kalahari Peoples Fund (based in Austin, Texas), which dated from the 1970s and operated through the apartheid era to create homegrown reading materials for local schools, among other projects.

Over the years the project became more ambitious. From afar came webmasters, tech assistants, linguists from Germany, donations of laptops and solar panels by foreign companies. Soon the Norwegian-funded Captain Kxao Kxami Community Centre became available with electricity and an internet connection.

In the foreign-funded center, with foreign-funded equipment—computers, digital recorders, video cams—the goal was “technological empowerment” to protect the culture, produce educational material for schools and build an archive. The mission was for the Ju’hoan people to tell their own stories. If these foreigners hadn’t done it, no one would have. And if this history had not been preserved, it would have been lost forever, not just to the people in Namibia but to the world.

Most of the high-profile projects and efforts, such as those of the Rohde Foundation, Oprah Winfrey, George Clooney, Madonna, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and the evangelical churches, represent a pittance of the total foreign aid to Africa. The real money, in the hundreds of millions, is the quiet annual funding from governments in the First World, and they are giving it with greater scrutiny. When in 2002 Denmark got wind of corruption and misuse of aid money in the Malawian government, it suspended its program. This is happening more and more, because the great problem is oversight and monitoring. It was to counter corruption that Millennium Challenge Corporation was begun.

Millennium Challenge Corporation was started in 2004 by the Bush administration, a consequence of the frustration of people who saw the United States Agency for International Development and other agencies pouring money into countries with few tangible results. MCC keeps a close eye on how American taxpayer money is dispensed in efforts to improve other people’s lives. The projects are spread all over Africa—indeed, all over the globe.

Oliver Pierson is resident country director in Namibia for MCC. Pierson is young, in his 30s, and quietly hearty. I liked his energy and admired his disposition. He biked and ran, even on the hottest Namibian days. He was married and lived in Windhoek when he was not traveling. He had been associated with MCC for four years.

In 2008 Pierson, with Peace Corps zeal, had started working for MCC in “project appraisal.” He became Namibia’s resident country director in 2011. It was Pierson who told me that Namibia was getting more than $300 million, and Tanzania got more than twice that, $698 million.

“But let me explain,” Pierson said, because hearing the large numbers, I had started to snort. The grant is administered in stages over five years in what is called a compact. And before a country qualifies for a compact it has to pass the eligibility requirements.

Pierson said, “And we do audits. There’s no evidence that contractors are misappropriating the funds. You wouldn’t believe how much time we spend monitoring these grants and double-checking.”

For a country to get U.S. money from MCC it must go through an intensive process of measurement in three categories: just rule, economic freedom and investment in people. If these conditions don’t exist, no money is given. Each category is further broken down into 22 indicators, such as land rights, civil liberties, control of corruption, freedom of information and so forth. And they have to be low- or middle-income countries. Botswana doesn’t qualify because it has a brisk economy.

And, Pierson said, sometimes a compact is in place and something changes that queers a development deal. After the 2009 coup in Madagascar, its multimillion-dollar compact was terminated. The Malawian government had signed on to a $350 million compact for investment in the energy sector, but not long after the signing there were demonstrations in three cities, including the capital, against the government’s human rights abuses. Nineteen demonstrators were shot dead by the army.

“So we put an operational hold on the compact,” Pierson said. “And then the Malawians were going to host Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir”—who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. And that was the end of Malawi’s deal. No more money. (The compact was reinstated after President Joyce Banda’s inauguration in April.)

Why do celebrities engage in high-profile philanthropy, especially in Africa? Obviously it is an expression of good-heartedness. It sometimes seems to me an act of atonement for all the bad karma and compromise accumulated in clawing to the top of celebrityhood. And for actors, musicians, performers, TV people—always at the mercy of directors, agents or bosses—it must be refreshing when they promote themselves to the role of world-traveling philanthropist, meeting a head of state on their own terms because they are holding a chunk of money. Fame itself is also a kind of currency, spendable all over the world. And in Africa the contrast is stark, literally in black and white.

But none of these donations begins to compare with the $67 million in MCC money Namibia was getting to promote tourism. When I remarked on the size of the grant, Pierson elaborated by saying it was for the improvement and management of Etosha National Park and for the marketing of Namibian tourism. Tourism? Many tourist destinations in the United States, which get nothing from the U.S. government, would have been glad to get the millions Namibia had been awarded. Places I knew well got no money from the government to prop up their tourism industries—Hawaii got nothing, Cape Cod got nothing—but they struggled along. I thought particularly of the Maine tourist industry, which has been in serious trouble because of the economic slump, high unemployment, high gas prices and the lack of awareness outside of Maine of the delights of the Maine coast, one of the noblest and best preserved on earth.

And the hard-pressed and severely taxed residents of Maine, many of whom work in the Maine tourism industry at motels and restaurants, were contributing to the improvement of the Namibian tourism industry, to lure herds of (mainly) German safari-goers to Etosha National Park?

“Let’s say I happened to be a Maine lobsterman,” I said to Pierson. “I get up at 4:30 every morning and set off in my boat to haul hundreds of traps. Some days fuel is so expensive and there are so few lobsters that I lose money. But I keep hauling. I pay my taxes. I’m wet and cold most of the time.” Pierson was smiling; he knew what was coming. “What would you have said to my late friend Alvin Rackliff of Wheeler Bay, Spruce Head, Maine about the use of his tax money to get tourists to Namibia?”

“I’d say we’re trying to help create countries that are stable,” Pierson said. “And it’s less than one percent of the total U.S. budget.”

“It’s still a ton of money. Alvin was heavily taxed and worked very hard.”

“It builds good relationships,” Pierson said.

“Alvin would have wanted to know what Namibia is doing for itself.”

“Each country contributes—up to half of the total,” Pierson said. “Ghana is a good example of how loans and investment help. We had a successful compact there. Namibia has had regular elections since 1989. As well as tourist-based development, we’re doing education and agriculture. Hey, it’s five years, and we keep checking that no one steals.”

What does all this mean to the average U.S. taxpayer? Not much, I felt. What would it have meant to sorely taxed and hardworking Alvin Rackliff in Maine? Up until he died, at 91, he was still fishing, still hauling traps. I can imagine him in his yellow slicker, wet gloves and rubber boots in the wheelhouse of his lobster boat, Morning Mist, as I told him what I’d heard, his mocking laughter ringing in my ears: “If you believe that, Paul, you’re crazy as a shit-house rat!”

But of the foreign aid schemes I’d come across, Millennium Challenge Corporation seemed to be doing its work honestly and well. I liked the idea that it cut off funds to countries that did not live up to their word and that tyrannies did not qualify. Still, the economists who denounce aid as harmful have a point.

For any organization to raise money, it needs to present a life-or-death struggle, which is why charities love crises. And crises perfectly suit celebrities, who are larger than life and for whom this drama of “saving lives” is a real-life reflection of the movies or songs they promote.

Still, the big-money aid in Africa seems bland compared with the vivid small-scale efforts of the celebrities and the highly publicized push to help villages like Oworobong. Anyone reading this in the United States can easily think of a needy or depressed neighborhood, slum area or dog town that would serve just as well for such an initiative. Brad Pitt is to be applauded for his work in post-Katrina New Orleans, but there are at least a hundred small towns in the United States where the annual per capita income is $5,300 or less. New schools and hospitals could have been built in Allen, South Dakota or Lukachukai, Arizona, where the residents live way below the poverty line. You don’t find celebrities in those places. You find them on TV, claiming, “I’ve just saved some lives in Africa.”

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read more: News, politics, issue december 2012


  • Anonymous
    Talk about speaking truth to power! Kudos to Mr. Theroux. The Power here, includes the moneyed Hollywood elite. The truth that putting on a good show of helping people only aids the powerful and assuages celebrity guilt. If you really want to make a difference, direct your resources to making areas self sufficient. Oh and do it outside the reach of Access Hollywood and Entertainment Tonight. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, integrity is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking.